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Choosing partners in security and justice programming: The need for pragmatism

Written by Lisa Denney

Given the current aid environment and widespread criticisms about UK aid spending, it is not surprising that plans by DFID to fund the training of Ethiopian paramilitaries with poor human rights records have come under attack. While it is not for me to judge whether engaging with this particular group is a good idea or not, the Ethiopian story is a good example of the real dilemmas faced by development practitioners and by policy-makers.

If the international community is serious about tackling security and justice deficits in the developing world, it must accept that it might have to work outside its comfort zone. This may require going beyond the traditional aid conditionality route, to consider how donors can best leverage their influence to reduce human rights abuses. In this context, which actors to support or work with, and under what conditions, is often at the heart of debates on justice and security sector reform.

First and foremost, there is a clear need to engage with a range of institutions responsible for delivering security and justice: not only the police, the army and the judiciary, but also traditional authorities, community policing groups and alternative dispute resolution mechanisms, so that they contribute to a more peaceful society that respects the rule of law.

There is also a need to go beyond the state/non-state divide. It is undeniable that both state and non-state security and justice actors abuse human rights in many cases. The entire premise of security and justice reforms should be to transform such rights abusers so that they do not continue to abuse human rights – and to end impunity where possible, including through improved accountability mechanisms. But it is naïve to suggest that peacebuilding programmes should work only with those who have a clean human rights record – not least because in many conflict-affected contexts there are few security and justice actors that can claim to possess a clean record. The reality of building disciplined, rights-respecting and professional security and justice services in conflict-affected contexts may precisely require working with some highly illiberal actors.

DFID is hardly rubbing its hands in glee at the prospects of working with such groups. Of course it would prefer to work with liberal-minded forces that support human rights. The point is that such forces are often non-existent in many fragile and conflict-affected contexts, and it is precisely the aim of security and justice programmes to ensure that they emerge. Such an approach to security and justice reform aims to work ‘with the grain’ of societies undergoing transition to create more rights-respecting, but also locally-meaningful and accepted, security and justice solutions.

Of course, this approach carries some risks and one-size-fits-all solutions will not work here. In reality, each situation needs to be judged on its own merits – and it may be the case that in the current aid environment, such decisions are tougher than ever. However, it is important to recognise that, if well understood and assessed, these risks can be mitigated. This will require some practical steps and changes to current approaches to standard justice and security programming.

First, it is important that international agencies (and the third party providers that implement many multi-year donor programmes) have a nuanced and politically-informed understanding of the societies with which they work. This should go beyond just the national level to engage with local-level dynamics and, importantly, draw on such sources as human rights reports to understand the potential to do harm. This understanding is only possible if donors invest in a broader range of staff expertise, including technical policing and justice skills, awareness of governance and political issues, and in-depth country and linguistic knowledge. Good local knowledge can be developed and maintained by longer stints in-country and by building staff incentives through appraisal processes.

Second, managing risk also requires the rigorous monitoring of programmes. This does not just mean a focus on demonstrating results, typically at the end of programming cycles. Monitoring and evaluation should be de-coupled so that the monitoring component fulfils its intended purpose of assessing progress and risks (including the risk of doing harm) on a rolling basis and adjusting projects that are not achieving intended goals. This still allows for evaluation to separately determine longer-term overall results but also provides room for the experimentation, programme refinement and ‘real time’ risk assessment that are required in the complex fields of security and justice.

Third, donors need to remember that security and justice institutions can only mirror the terms of the reigning political settlement. Tinkering with security and justice institutions in ways that are overly localised can miss a key point: that without deeper political reform the underlying causes of violence and conflict, and ongoing protection for the impunity of perpetrators, will remain unchallenged. Security and justice reform cannot, therefore, be considered in isolation from the wider political process.

Conflict is widely recognised as one of the biggest inhibitors to development – underscored by the fact that no fragile states are on track to meet a single Millennium Development Goal. As a result, personal security and conflict are being considered for inclusion in the post-2015 development agenda. If we are serious about the challenge that insecurity poses to development, we need to recognise that engaging with the issue is going to be complicated and involve some difficult decisions that may involve getting our hands dirty.